Dr Mary-Liz Trant is Executive Director of Skills Development at SOLAS.

Dr Mary-Liz Trant is Executive Director of Skills Development at SOLAS.

This article by Dr Mary-Liz Trant and co-author Ray Kelly is taken from the Further Education and Training section of Education Matters Yearbook 2015 -2016.
Click to download Education Matters Yearbook 2015-2016

“If Ireland is to be both competitive and innovative we need a highly skilled workforce. Apprenticeships offer a tried and tested method of developing highly skilled workers using a powerful mixture of course work and practical on the job learning. I am delighted we are now about to double the number of Apprenticeship Schemes to better serve the needs of a whole new range of industry sectors, and to offer new and exciting career opportunities to our people.”
Minister Damien English TD, speaking at the announcement of development plans for twenty-five new apprenticeships, 30 July 2015

30 July 2015 was a red letter day for apprenticeships and career development options in Ireland, when the Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan TD, and the Minister of State for Skills, Research and Innovation, Damien English TD, announced plans for development of twenty-five new apprenticeship programmes, adding to the twenty-seven currently in existence.

The announcement followed extensive work over the past three years, which included a formal review of the apprenticeship system nationally. Published in January 2014, the review set out the role and contribution of apprenticeships as part of the education and training system in Ireland. It charted the growth in strong industry-education partnerships in learning around the world, where learners, employers and national economies are benefiting significantly from the apprenticeship model of education and training. The review also set out recommendations on how the Irish approach should evolve to meet the current and future skills needs of employers and the economy, and how to expand access for potential apprentices and employers.

The review supported two major new initiatives by the State, firstly to comprehensively review and develop the existing twenty-five apprenticeship programmes so that they continue to be fit-for-purpose for employers and trainee apprentices, and secondly, to embark on development of apprenticeships in new and emerging areas of skills need.

Review and development of existing apprenticeships
Apprenticeship holds a high status among Irish employers, and there is broad awareness of the superb career development opportunities the apprenticeship route has provided to thousands of young and older people in Ireland. Since the introduction of the Standards Based Apprenticeship System in 1993, more than 60,000 apprentices have successfully qualified as craftspeople, with over 30,000 employers engaged in employing and training apprentices around the country. The quality of Irish apprentices and the apprenticeship system is also recognised internationally. Irish craftspeople are in demand among employers around the world and Ireland has a record of excellent performance at the World Skills Competition, an event which enables apprentices from seventy countries and regions to demonstrate their skills in the areas of craft and technology. Since 2009, when Ireland started competing in the biennial World Skills competitions, the Irish teams have brought home ten gold medals, two silver medals, a bronze medal and twenty-five medallions of excellence.

To ensure the continued relevance and quality of existing apprenticeships, a large-scale project of review and standards development for the twenty-five areas of craft apprenticeship got underway in 2013. SOLAS, employer and trade union representative organisations, Education and Training Boards, Institutes of Technology and Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) are working collectively on the project, with SOLAS co-ordinating the process. The initial focus was to develop occupational and award standards and to revise the curricula for five craft apprenticeship programmes. To-date, these five craft apprenticeships have been comprehensively reviewed, and have recently gone through a validation process with the QQI. It is planned that work on the remainder of the apprenticeships will be completed by early-to-mid 2016. While all apprenticeships currently lead to an award at Level 6 on the National Framework of Qualifications, it is possible that, following the review project, some apprenticeships will be repositioned at either a higher or a lower level on the Framework.

TABLE 1:  
List of existing apprenticeships, grouped by industry sector
Construction Brick and stonelaying
Carpentry and joinery
Floor and wall tiling
Painting and decorating
Wood manufacturing and finishing

Electrical instrumentation
Refrigeration and air conditioning
Aircraft mechanics
Electronic security systems

Agricultural mechanics
Construction plant fitting
Heavy vehicle mechanics
Motor mechanics
Vehicle body repairs

Mechanical automation and maintenance fitting
Metal fabrication
Sheet metal work
Industrial insulation

Print media

Development of new apprenticeships
Also in 2014, a new Apprenticeship Council was established by the Minister for Education and Skills. The Council began its work in November of that year. Its principal initial objective was to advise on and support development of apprenticeships in areas of new and emerging skills needs

The Council issued a Call for Proposals on new apprenticeships in January 2015 via a dedicated website www.apprenticeshipcouncil.ie. The Call included a range of criteria to guide proposers. These criteria were drawn from the 2014 National Review recommendations. The criteria were as follows:

  • New apprenticeships must be industry-led and specific on the occupation for which they are preparing trainee apprentices
  • They must be substantial in depth and duration, in order to prepare apprentices to work autonomously and competently in a specific occupation
  • they will lead to an award recognised on the National Framework of Qualifications and may span Level 5 to Level 10
  • They will be a minimum of two years in duration
  • Learning undertaken must alternate between the workplace and the formal learning setting
  • A minimum of 50% of the apprenticeship is allocated to on-the-job training
  • Apprentices will be employed and paid under a Contract of Apprenticeship.

In response to the Call for Proposals for new apprenticeships, 86 separate proposals were received from 46 consortia around the country. The consortia included companies, employer networks and education and training providers. A wide range of industry sectors were covered, including ICT, engineering, financial services; hospitality; tourism; business administration and management. In many cases companies and networks of companies were the lead proposers, and in others, further and higher education and training providers took the lead, with support from named industry partners.

Following a detailed evaluation process, twenty-five of the proposals were recommended by the Council as being both sustainable and at an advanced stage of design, planning and industry/education collaboration. These proposals are being developed during the remainder of 2015 and into 2016, with the aim to roll out a range of new offerings to employers and trainee apprentices over the coming twelve-to-eighteen months. The new apprenticeships, set out in Table 1 below, will span a range of skills and sectors, will range in duration from two-to-four-years, and will lead to awards spanning Levels 5 to 9 on the National Framework of Qualifications.

Table 2
New apprenticeship programmes approved for development 2015-16

Proposer: Accounting Technicians Ireland; New apprenticeship title: Higher apprenticeship in accountancy 
Proposer: Association of Craft Butchers of Ireland; New apprenticeship title: Butchery and fresh food retail 
Proposer: Combilift; New apprenticeship title: OEM technician
Proposer: Dawson Travel; New apprenticeship title: Travel professional 
Proposer: Donegal ETB: New apprenticeship title: Advanced craft welder 
Proposer: Donegal ETB; New apprenticeship title: Craft welder 
Proposer: Eircom; New apprenticeship title: Telecommunications field technician 
Proposer: Fasttrack to IT; New apprenticeship title: Network engineering 
Proposer: Fasttrack to IT; New apprenticeship title: Software developer 
Proposer: Financial Services Ireland; New apprenticeship title: International financial services generalist 
Proposer: Financial Services Ireland; New apprenticeship title: International financial services advanced specialist 
Proposer: Financial Services Ireland; New apprenticeship title: International financial services specialist 
Proposer: Flour Confectionary and Bakers Association; New apprenticeship title: Baker 
Proposer: Irish Hotels Federation & Restaurants Association of Ireland; New apprenticeship title: Commis chef 
Proposer: Irish Medical Device Association; New apprenticeship title: Manufacturing engineer 
Proposer: Irish Medical Device Association; New apprenticeship title: Manufacturing technician 
Proposer: Irish Road Haulage Association; New apprenticeship title: HGV driver 
Proposer: IT Tralee; New apprenticeship title: Sous chef
Proposer: IT Tralee; New apprenticeship title: Chef de partie 
Proposer: IT Tralee; New apprenticeship title: Commis chef 
Proposer: IT Tralee; New apprenticeship title: Executive chef 
Proposer: Limerick IOT; New apprenticeship title: Field service engineer – Electrical technology 
Proposer: National Institute of Transport and Logistics; New apprenticeship title: Warehouse and distribution operative 
Proposer: Plastics Ireland; New apprenticeship title: Polymer processing technician 
Proposer: Zurich Insurance; New apprenticeship title: General insurance practitioner 

A further substantial number of the remainder of the new apprenticeship proposals were deemed by the Apprenticeship Council to have substance and merit. These proposals will be further developed, albeit with a longer timeframe for completion and roll out.

Sustaining a world-class apprenticeship system in Ireland – Challenges ahead
It is clear that a lot has been achieved in apprenticeship education and training over the past three years, with significant further activity during 2015-2017. Building on its strong track record, and along with the development of innovative new apprenticeships, Ireland has the opportunity to further develop and embed a world-class apprenticeship system. Success will bring great benefits, with apprenticeship forming part of a system of vibrant, high quality education and training that meets the needs of employers and of learners and supports the return of a dynamic, prosperous economy and society in Ireland.

There are, however, challenges in achieving and sustaining this goal of a world-class apprenticeship system, of which three in particular will need resolution over the next 2-3 years.

(i) Communicating the value of the apprenticeship route
Firstly, there is a need to enhance awareness of the opportunity and value of the apprenticeship route among young and older people, in particular within the large group of learners who thrive on the dual mode of learning, combining workplace learning in an enterprise with classroom teaching in an education or training setting, and the practical as well as theoretical approach that an apprenticeship provides. There is also a need for enhanced understanding among employers of the opportunity and attractiveness of the apprenticeship route, in particular those employers who are in new and emerging industry sectors, and those in the foreign direct investment category as well as indigenous companies.

(ii) Establishing a unified apprenticeship system
The second challenge relates to how the existing and the new apprenticeships develop together. As a country we have decided to further invest in the apprenticeship route, adding new opportunities to a well-established system. There are, however, differences between the existing and the new; over the coming months good collaboration between key stakeholders will be essential so that the system develops and expands as a coherent whole. Success will mean that the status and reputation of the apprenticeship route is safeguarded and further enhanced among apprentices, employers and the wider public.

(iii) Sustaining collective investment in apprenticeship
The third challenge will be to ensure that the apprenticeship route continues to benefit from sustained investment of human, financial and infrastructural resources by a range of stakeholders, which include employers, the further and higher education and training system, and central Government. It will be important that this investment by multiple partners is effectively co-ordinated and managed, with the burden of investment equitably shared.
Success will result in a thriving, high-impact route to education, training and careers.

The author Dr Mary-Liz Trant is Executive Director of Skills Development at SOLAS and co-author Ray Kelly is Director of Apprenticeship and Construction Services at SOLAS.